Venus and Adonis (Shakespeare poem)

Venus and Adonis (Shakespeare poem)

"Venus and Adonis" is one of Shakespeare's three longer poems.


"Venus and Adonis" was entered into the Stationers' Register on April 18, 1593; the poem appeared later that year in a quarto edition, published and printed by Richard Field, a Stratford-upon-Avon man and a close contemporary of Shakespeare. Field released a second quarto in 1594, then transferred his copyright to John Harrison ("the Elder"), the stationer who published the first edition of "The Rape of Lucrece," also in 1594. Subsequent editions of "Venus and Adonis" were in octavo format rather than quarto; Harrison issued the third edition (O1) probably in 1595, and the fourth (O2) in 1596 (both of Harrison's editions were printed by Field). The poem's copyright then passed to William Leake, who published two editions (O3, O4) in 1599 alone, with perhaps four (O5, O6, O7, and O8) in 1602. The copyright passed to William Barrett in 1617; Barrett issued O9 that same year. Five more editions appeared by 1640 — making the poem, with 16 editions in 47 years, one of the great popular successes of its era. [Halliday: "A Shakespeare Companion", p. 513.]

Historical background

In 1593, an outbreak of the plague in London caused the city authorities to close all the public playhouses. Shakespeare had by this time written perhaps the first 5 or 6 of his plays, and was building a reputation. He set about what he would publish as "the first heire ["sic"] of my invention" [Quoted in Caldecott: "Our English Homer", p. 7.] — that is, the first legitimate offspring from his "muse". [This has often been interpreted as referring rather to his first-ever literary work. Elzea's "Life" contends that " [i] t is very likely that the poem was Shakespeare's first production in the actual sense of the word, and that he brought it with him from Stratford to London."] He dedicated the work to Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southampton.

In 1594 Shakespeare dedicated "Lucrece" to Southampton as the 'graver labour' promised in his dedication to "Venus and Adonis". Southampton was in financial difficulties, but it is still possible that this patron was extravagant enough to reward these irresistible overtures with a substantial amount of money. Shakespeare from somewhere acquired enough capital to become a one-twelfth sharer in his theatre company's profits from performance. It was thereafter apparently more lucrative for him to write plays than long poems. [Gurr: "The Shakespearean Stage", p. 76.]

Literary background

to dissuade him from hunting dangerous animals, he disregards the warning, and is killed by a boar.

Shakespeare developed this basic narrative into a poem of 1194 lines. His chief innovation was to make Adonis refuse Venus's offer of herself. It has been argued (by Erwin Panofsky) that Shakespeare might have seen a copy of Titian's 'Venus and Adonis', a painting that could be taken to show Adonis refusing to join Venus in embraces. But Shakespeare's plays already showed a liking for activist heroines, forced to woo and pursue an evasive male (see "The Two Gentlemen of Verona").

The other innovation was a kind of observance of the 'Aristotelian' unities: the action takes place in one location, lasts from morning till morning, and focuses on the two main characters.


Venus enters the poem 'sick-thoughted' with love, and hoists Adonis from the saddle of his horse. She then plies him with kisses, and arguments, but nothing she does or says can rouse him to sexual desire. This he repudiates. By the mid-point of the poem, Adonis has announced his intention to go boar hunting the next morning. Venus tries to dissuade him, and get him to hunt more timid prey. This he ignores, and breaks away from her. She spends the rest of the night in lamentation, at dawn, she hears the sound of the hunt. Full of apprehension, she runs towards the noise, knowing that, as the sound comes from just one place, the hunters are confronting an animal that isn't running away. She comes upon the body of Adonis, fatally gored by the boar's tusks. In her horror and sorrow, the Goddess of Love pronounces a curse upon love: that it will always end badly, and those who love best (like her) will know most sorrow. This curse provides an aetiology, a myth of causation, explaining why love is inseparable from pain (this is characteristic of the form).

Shakespeare's poem is seen as an 'epyllion', a minor epic of sexual love. Thomas Lodge had inaugurated the genre in his 'Glaucus and Scilla' (1589). The main rival was Marlowe's unfinished "Hero and Leander". That poem, and Shakespeare's, went on being reprinted through the first half of the 17th century. Problems about who owned the text probably prevented its publication in the 1623 Folio of Shakespeare's works.

"Venus and Adonis" is written in an incessantly clever manner. Venus's words to Adonis from line 229 onwards:

"Fondling," she saith, "since I have hemm'd thee here"
"Within the circuit of this ivory pale,"
"I'll be a park, and thou shalt be my deer;"
"Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:"
"Graze on my lips; and if those hills be dry,"
"Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie."

were endlessly alluded to in the period. They are typical of the poem, in making the reader have the indecent thoughts, while remaining almost innocent: 'those hills' all too easily cease to mean her swelling lips, and turn into her breasts, so that the reader's imagination runs down her body, and the closing lines start to hint at cunnilingus. Throughout the poem, Shakespeare denies to his reader the sexual consummation Adonis denies to Venus. The poem had a contemporary reputation as erotica, but functions more as a witty frustration of pornographic reading.

At line 505, Shakespeare rather daringly alludes to the perils of 1593. Venus coerces a kiss from Adonis, and to celebrate its sweetness, says of Adonis' lips:

"Long may they kiss each other, for this cure!"
"O, never let their crimson liveries wear!"
"And as they last, their verdure still endure,"
"To drive infection from the dangerous year!"
"That the star-gazers, having writ on death,"
"May say, the plague is banish'd by thy breath." "

In these lines, Adonis's sweet breath acts like the kind of herbal nosegays people used to carry around, to try to keep themselves from inhaling the miasma which they thought spread the plague. It is possible that contemporaries would have sensed, in reading the lines about Adonis's beautiful body despoiled by the boar, which has ripped open his groin, that the end of the poem invited them to consider the plague victims. The buboes of bubonic plague formed in the neck and the groin, and the victim died when they burst, agonisingly: love cannot save even the most beautiful from an ugly death.


*Doom metal band My Dying Bride used extracts of the poem in the song "For My Fallen Angel", on their 1996 album, Like Gods of the Sun.

ee also

*Shakespeare's sonnets
* - painting by Titian
*Ovid's Metamorphoses


*Caldecott, Harry Stratford: "Our English Homer; or, the Bacon-Shakespeare Controversy" (Johannesburg Times, 1895).
*Gurr, Andrew: "The Shakespearean Stage: 1574-1642" (Cambridge, 1992).
*Halliday, F. E.: "A Shakespeare Companion: 15641964". (Penguin, 1964).


External links

*gutenberg|no=1045|name=Venus and Adonis
* [ Venus and Adonis (1593)] Full text

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